Madness in the Moonlight: Rediscovering 1934’s Black Moon by matthew c . hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 17, 2014 by mchoffman

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Transcript from our screening on 4/17/14:

I used to collect dozens of rare movies on VHS. These were often bootlegged copies recorded off some “Channel Z” station. One of the tapes I had which I never had a chance to watch was Black Moon (1934). I’m glad I never viewed that video copy because several years ago I had the chance to see it screened on film at the Bank of America Cinema, which had been the LaSalle Bank Theatre when I operated it. What you will see tonight won’t have the texture or richness of the images I saw because projected film looks differently, and I believe movies shot on film should be shown on film if possible. But you’ll get a close approximation of that experience. What I remember most about seeing tonight’s film for the first time is the cinematography by Joseph August and the brooding atmosphere that pervades the film from the very first scene to its bizarre climax.

Black Moon is the sort of pulp fiction one might’ve seen illustrated on the cover of an issue of Weird Tales. Based on a short story by Clements Ripley, it tells the story of a woman haunted by the shadows of her past. Dorothy Burgess plays Juanita, a wife and mother who is called back to the island of San Christopher in the West Indies. At an early age she had been exposed to the rituals of voodoo, and though she was able to escape the island, she was never able to escape its hold on her. The only way she can overcome those dark forces is to return to their source. However, in the eyes of the natives, she is welcomed as a returning priestess—a jungle goddess of sorts. Jack Holt plays her businessman husband, Stephen Lane, who wonders why she’s disappearing into the jungle at night, and Fay Wray is his secretary, Gail, who accompanies Juanita on the trip (even though she’s secretly in love with Lane). Gail sounds the alarm almost immediately upon arriving. She sends a message for Lane to join them on the island.

Black Moon feels a little like a B movie, but its production values are much higher than the typical programmer. Joseph August was one of the most accomplished cinematographers in Hollywood. He would shoot such films as The Informer, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Devil and Daniel Webster. The compositions and lighting reflect a level of detail and care you wouldn’t find in most low-budget films. One instance in particular is the scene in which the natives try to smoke out the heroes who have taken refuge in a tower on the plantation. The smoke gradually seeps in under the locked door until the characters are suffocating in a beautifully lit scene.

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Jack Holt, who plays our rather husky hero, is only adequate here. His best moments are his scenes with Cora Sue Collins as the little daughter; you get a sense of genuine concern for her. Holt was a square-jawed, two-fisted hero of mostly westerns. His most successful period as a star came in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Three Jack Holt films worth rediscovering are Submarine (1928), Flight (1929), and Dirigible (1931), but that’s only because they were all directed by Frank Capra. Holt is the father of Tim Holt, who starred in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Jack Holt was also the physical inspiration for Chester Gould’s comic book character Dick Tracy.

Dorothy Burgess plays Juanita, the Creole-speaking wife who essentially turns her back on the civilized world to join the natives. For its time, the concept of a white woman becoming part of black culture must’ve shocked the sensibilities of viewers. Though her situation is certainly removed from our reality—I doubt many of you have ties to jungle sorcery– Burgess conveys the inner turmoil of her character as forcefully as someone today who might be struggling with bi-polar illness or depression. Her battle is with a psychological monster. She’s split between her civilized self and the world of her people on the island. Her duality even pulls her away from her own family, and that is the most tragic aspect of the film. She confronts these beckoning demons head-on, but it all goes wrong in a hurry and she succumbs to their power. Though we should be sympathetic towards her given her earlier experiences as a child, the movie instead makes Juanita the villain.

Dorothy Burgess had been a Broadway actress and acting ran in the family. Her aunt was the famous stage actress Fay Bainter. Burgess later starred in several films in Hollywood following her big break in 1928’s In Old Arizona, in which she played the Spanish love interest for Warner Baxter’s Cisco Kid. Some of her 1930s credits include Hold Your Man, Taxi!, and Ladies They Talk About with Barbara Stanwyck. Her own life was haunted by personal tragedy. In 1932 Burgess was charged with manslaughter when her car piled into another vehicle, killing a 17 year old girl. When her film career came to an end in the mid-1940s Burgess turned to writing. In 1944 she published a novel called Say Uncle, which deals with vampires. She was only 54 when she died in 1961.

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Fay Wray, the great scream queen of 1930s horror, stars as Gail. She’s the secretary who becomes a mother substitute after Juanita falls under the jungle spell. Though Fay has little to do in the film, her presence in it nonetheless is one of the highlights. Fay had been acting since the silent era when she appeared in films like The Wedding March. Throughout the early 1930s she played the heroine in many chillers including The Most Dangerous Game, The Mystery of the Wax Museum and Dr. X. She starred opposite Jack Holt in several films including Dirigible. Though she’s a brunette here, Fay Wray is best remembered as a blonde in her most famous film, 1933’s King Kong.

Clarence Muse, who plays the character Lunch in this film, was a multi-talented black actor who also wrote and composed music. Horror fans will remember him as the coach driver in another voodoo film, White Zombie. For a Hollywood film, Black Moon is distinct because Muse is not playing a racial stereotype in the manner of his contemporaries like Willie Best, for example. He provides some comedy relief, but it’s not nearly as offensive or demeaning as it could’ve been. His character brings a degree of balance to a racially-charged film. The story’s background is a social powder keg ready to explode. Juanita’s uncle, who comes from a long line of white oppressors, lives on a plantation that is periodically besieged by the black residents—the “monkey chasers,” as Lunch calls them.

Roy William Neill directed Black Moon. The following year he made The Black Room with Boris Karloff in a dual role, and his last credit was the film noir The Black Angel in 1946. Besides movies with “Black” in the title, Neill is best known for the several Sherlock Holmes films he made in the 1940s with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. He also directed Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which is the best of the Frankenstein sequels after Son of Frankenstein. In Black Moon, Neill establishes an almost claustrophobic jungle environment where the menace is always closing in– not unlike 1933’s The Island of Lost Souls. Sets such as the plantation house are not secure enough to keep this dread presence out.

Note the shadow of the hanging man in the background!
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For people expecting zombies and the walking dead, that’s not what this one is about. However, there’s no question Black Moon’s oppressive mood was an influence on Val Lewton’s later film, I Walked With a Zombie. The rhythmic beat of drums is heard periodically on the soundtrack, adding a sense of foreboding. There are some genuinely disturbing moments in the film, perhaps none more so than the climax involving a voodoo sacrifice and the choice the hero must make. It’s the kind of ending that will leave you speechless.

The Rediscovered was initially going to be a series all about strange adventures in exotic lands, but as the series evolved into something broader, only two films from that early concept stayed: West of Zanzibar and tonight’s film. They are also the two shortest films in the program. Black Moon is only 68 minutes, but its storytelling is very economical. It’s an overlooked film from the 1930s with horror overtones. The story might not appeal to everyone, but pay more attention to the film’s visual imagery and its atmosphere. There you will discover the power and magic of Black Moon. I hope you as viewers will fall under its hypnotic spell.

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Night Flight (1933) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 12, 2014 by mchoffman

“What’s it all for? Just so somebody in Paris can get a postcard on Tuesday instead of Thursday?” ~ a pilot’s wife (Myrna Loy) in Night Flight

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Transcript from our screening on 4/10/14:

The Rediscovered is a film program about rediscovering lesser-known films and stars, but tonight’s cast needs no introduction. If I were to read you bios on everyone who is in this movie we’ll be here till tomorrow, so I will bypass that and cut to the chase. Not a lot of people have seen this one, and I’m sure those who skipped tonight’s film have no idea who’s in it. How can you pass up a movie with Myrna Loy?

Night Flight tells the story of the Trans-Andean Airmail pilots of South America. The film covers a period of 24 hours in their lives. These were the early days of night flying when pilots had to contend with fog, air currents, and mountains—and they didn’t have instrument flying. John Barrymore is Riviere, the managing director of the service. He’s a strict disciplinarian who has no room for sentiment. His pilots include Robert Montgomery as Pellerin, who quietly reflects upon a recent near-death experience, and Fabian played by Clark Gable, who is already in the air as the film begins.

The story is framed by a hospital’s need to get a polio serum to a sick child. Since the hospital is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the serum is in Santiago, Chile, a sense of urgency is immediately established. The film balances the danger of night flight with the human drama on the ground. Helen Hayes as Madam Fabian waits to hear news about Clark Gable, who is behind schedule, and Myrna Loy plays a young wife who wants to keep her pilot-husband (played by William Gargan) earthbound and close to her.

Those familiar with the studio system will recognize Night Flight as an MGM product. Since they were the studio that supplied us with more stars than there are in Heaven, you get John and Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, and Myrna Loy among others. It’s an all-star, ensemble cast along the lines of Grand Hotel and the more recent Dinner at Eight. But comparing it to those earlier films is misleading because the actors in Night Flight are relegated to essentially bit roles. Unlike its predecessors, characters here rarely interact with the other stars of the film. In fact, the radio operator, played by Frank Conroy, probably has as much importance as some of the stars, which makes it feel like a level playing field in terms of performance. In many ways, this was a very odd film for MGM.

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If there’s one actor who holds it all together, it’s former film idol John Barrymore. His character’s life is dominated by the oversized map of South America with all its lights showing the flight routes. He’s determined to keep the flights on time and to preserve the company’s safety record as though he himself were operating as a mechanism of absolute certainty. He demands the impossible and expects to get it. He chain-smokes his way through the long hours, dealing with the pilots, the French board of directors, and the wife of a lost pilot, Madam Fabian.

Lionel Barrymore plays the middleman inspector who is always scratching himself. This would be his last film with his brother John. In The Motion Picture Guide, authors Jay Robert Nash, Stanley Ralph Ross, and Robert Connelly recount a story from on the set where the director, Clarence Brown, bet John Barrymore ten dollars that his brother Lionel would not be able to upstage him in the scene where Riviere criticizes the unfortunate Robineau. “When the scene was shot, Lionel stood mute, his face twitching, his eyes rolling, but the script had silenced even his notorious whine. He turned to go, but when he reached the door… he reached his hand behind him and scratched his bottom. Beamed John to Brown: ‘Now there, sir, is a brother to be proud of. Pay me the ten dollars!’”

Robert Montgomery has a very good scene in which he conveys what it feels like to be alive after coming so close to death in the mountains. It’s a rather mystical moment that captures some of the essence of the book the film is based on. Meanwhile, Helen Hayes looks out to the moon, an image that seems to unite all the characters in one way or another. Her thoughts are on her long overdue husband. Helen Hayes may have been the First Lady of the Stage, but in this film she unintentionally conveys emotional instability– talking to a husband who isn’t there at the dinner table and flying off into hysterics with Riviere.

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In her autobiography, My Life in Three Acts, there is a great story Helen Hayes tells of working with Barrymore. This was at a time in Barrymore’s career when he relied more and more on cue cards in order to remember his lines. Apparently they were ready if he needed them, but the take went perfectly. Hayes writes of their scene together,

“John had a tempestuous personality and a well-deserved reputation for throwing people off, for unnerving even the most experienced actors… Determined to give him no cause to blow up at me if I could help it, I memorized my lines until I could say them in my sleep…. Our director, Clarence Brown, was astonished. ‘I can’t believe it, John,’ he said. ‘You didn’t need the idiot cards. What happened?’ ‘I was working with a real actress,’ said John. ‘I didn’t want to make a goddamn fool of myself.’ That, coming from John Barrymore, America’s great actor, remains my favorite notice.”

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Myrna Loy and William Gargan come across much better, each giving an understated performance which seems more natural. Loy is especially poignant when she tells her husband she will never be able to share in that experience he has in the air. As for Clark Gable, he does more writing than speaking while flying over the South American pampas, but the film’s most dramatic moments in the air are with him.

Some supporting actors I’d like to point out are Leslie Fenton, who plays Gable’s co-pilot. He was Ann Dvorak’s husband, and you’ll see him in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain for those who can make the April 23rd show at the Patio Theatre. Robert Montgomery’s girlfriend at the beginning of the film is Dorothy Burgess, who you’ll see next week in Black Moon. At one point Burgess was engaged to the film’s director.

Night Flight was helmed by Clarence Brown, a director of exceptional skill. He made several important pictures for MGM including Anna Karenina, which was one of the seven films he made with Greta Garbo. With this film, Brown fashioned a tense drama using a minimalist approach. Ironically, the film was originally previewed at two hours. This version is 84 minutes, so you wonder what they took out. Night Flight feels different than their other big budget films. It just has an atmosphere that doesn’t feel so studio-bound. Close-ups are effective when needed, and the action always seems intimate. The scenes in the line offices really stand out, depicting the men and machines that are always in motion.

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Night Flight has a strong sense of imagery. There’s a very dramatic shot in the movie where Gable’s Fabian, who is way off course, sends down a flare, and it’s frightening what that light reveals below. Throughout the film, we also see from above the lives of the locals as the planes fly over. These are done through interesting transitions– optical wipes that move across the screen to reveal the next scene. Adding to the film’s visual power is the musical score by house composer Herbert Stothart which is particularly dramatic during the flying sequences.

Night Flight was based on a novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. His book won the 1931 Prix Femina award in 1931, which may have attracted the attention of David O. Selznick, who produced the film. Saint-Exupery was a former airmail pilot himself who became an author. He wrote about his experiences in the Argentinean commercial air service, and the characters in the film are based on people he had known. Saint-Exupery led a fascinating life which was cut short during World War II when his plane was shot down by the Germans. His best-known literary work is The Little Prince, which was published posthumously.

Night Flight had been long out of circulation since 1942 due to a legal issue involving the estate of Saint-Exupery. In the years since TCM premiered it in 2011, it’s received mixed reviews. Some critics feel it’s far from the lost masterpiece they were expecting, citing the lack of characterization– that there’s no one to care about. For instance, we don’t know anything about Clark Gable since he spends the whole film in the cockpit. Perhaps this is why the studio used the sick child we see in the beginning as a plot device to get audiences involved. This aspect was not in the original novel. Other viewers, such as myself, have a far different opinion of the film and its place in the aviation genre.

Some of the best films dealing with the dangers of early aviation came out in the 1930s. I’m reminded of another movie that hit theatres the previous year in 1932–John Ford’s Airmail starring Ralph Bellamy– a film I had played at the LaSalle Bank revival house in Chicago. A superior take on this type of material is Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings. Night Flight is not in the category of the latter. It is, however, the one film in this series which might fly in under your radar of expectations. I think it will surprise some—not just because of the cast– but because it’s an exceptional drama about the spirit of aviation. The aerial photography is stunning, but it’s a film that is more than that. It shows the dangers, but Night Flight also hints at the lyrical quality of flying itself. It’s an elusive experience which Saint-Exupery captured in written words, and which here is translated in visual terms through the power of the motion picture medium.

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Gallant Lady (1933) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 4, 2014 by mchoffman

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Transcript from our screening on 4/3/14:

Gallant Lady was the last film to be added to our spring lineup; I didn’t want to do this series without Ann Harding. I may not have picked her best film, but it’s something most of us haven’t seen, and I’m sure for some, this will be your first experience with her. The title of tonight’s film well describes Ann Harding herself. In many of her films, she played characters who embodied class and sophistication. Harding became associated with the noble heroines she played onscreen. She was the gallant lady of Hollywood, so it’s fitting that the only biography written about her would be called Cinema’s Gallant Lady.

The other day I was paging through a book called 501 Movie Stars: A Comprehensive Guide to the Greatest Screen Actors. But apparently, it’s not all that comprehensive since Ann Harding is nowhere to be found under the letter “H.” They did list Goldie Hawn and Salma Hayek. It’s an understatement to say that Harding is underappreciated today, but in her day, she was known for her ethereal beauty and her long blonde hair, her deep voice and precise diction, and for the stage-trained abilities that separated her from other stars who might’ve gotten by on looks and charm.

Hers was a modern style of acting that seems as fresh today as it was back then. She came across as natural without any affectation. There was a honesty in her characterizations. Onscreen, she could convey the impression that she was truly listening to another actor and not just waiting for her cues. She could project thought without words and without any over-the-top histrionics. Her ability to understand a character through that person’s perspective made Ann Harding an exceptional talent we could sympathize with.

In his introduction to Scott O’Brien’s essential Ann Harding: Cinema’s Gallant Lady, film critic and author Mick LaSalle writes, “The loss of Ann Harding to history is not something akin to the relative obscurity of, say, Madge Evans, a completely charming actress of the same era. In terms of talent, this is more as if Bette Davis were somehow to be forgotten. Harding’s body of work was small. Her luck in terms of studios was nonexistent, and the coming of the Production Code eliminated the sex drama, the genre in which she thrived. For these reasons, most people have never seen an Ann Harding movie. But the talent was enormous—and apparent to anyone within 10 minutes of watching her on screen.”

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Ann Harding entered this world as Dorothy Walton Gatley in 1902. She was born on an Army base in San Antonio, Texas. Her father was a career officer who later served in World War I. Dorothy grew up living a military life and following its protocol, but she was a strong-willed girl who wanted to rebel and lead her own life. Her family travelled a lot and she never had permanent roots until much later when she settled in Hollywood. Dorothy grew up in New Jersey, and after she finished school she found work as a freelance script reader in Long Island for the Famous Players-Lasky studio. This was hardly fulfilling work, but one day she found her adventure. She answered an ad calling for an inexperienced actress to perform in a play staged by the Provincetown Players, a repertory company. This led to a long association with the theatre world which would culminate with a highly-respected but physically grueling career on Broadway. Her father never approved of her decision to be an actress. For many years she was estranged from General Gatley, who felt she had taken the “straight and inevitable road to Hell.” Ann’s stage career eventually took its toll on her and she left for the West Coast. There, she found new opportunities in the motion picture medium.

Of the many actresses who migrated to Hollywood from Broadway, Ann Harding was perhaps the finest of them all. She made her film debut in 1929’s Paris Bound with Fredric March. That same year she appeared opposite Ronald Colman in Condemned. But the role that really made her a star came in the 1930 version of Philip Barry’s play, Holiday, later remade eight years later with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Ann would receive her only nomination for Best Actress for her performance in this early talkie. Some of her best work followed in the wake of this success, including 1931’s Devotion and 1932’s Animal Kingdom—both with Leslie Howard– When Ladies Meet, and Double Harness with William Powell. Ann Harding was RKO’s leading actress, but Katharine Hepburn was waiting in the wings.

Though tonight’s film features a fine performance by Harding, it also reflects the kind of typecasting that would limit the range of her work. Gallant Lady depicts Ann as the sort of self-sacrificing woman she would play in several tearjerkers including her very next film, The Life of Vergie Winters (1934). But regardless of the soap drama aspects, Ann always elevated the material. She virtually defined the “woman’s picture” of the 1930s. Gallant Lady is a “weepie” about mother love geared towards the female audience. It has Ann playing Sally, a young, unwed mother who gives up her baby for adoption. She tries to put her child out of her mind and go on with her new life as an interior decorator. However, after a chance encounter with her son in Europe, she resolves to be a mother to him again.

With Clive Brook
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The film has some rather contrived plot elements. It takes a serious stretch of the imagination to believe she would cross paths with her son again, and I’m not sure what purpose Tullio Carminati’s Italian count serves in this film other than to sing a couple songs and hit home the unrequited love theme. But I don’t want to fixate on the story because this is not a story rooted in reality. Certainly by today’s standards the plot is incredible, but we have to remember that 80 years ago women were not as liberated as they are today. An unwed mother had limited options. In Gallant Lady, Ann Harding is forced to use deception as one of those options. But even if the story is ambiguous in what it wants to say, it features some well-drawn characterizations that hold the viewer’s interest.

Author Scott O’Brien writes, “Gallant Lady is a compelling drama, and certainly worthy of the talents that brought it to the screen. Gilbert Emery, who had rescued Ann’s Broadway career by getting her to play in Tarnish, wrote Gallant Lady specifically for her. He stated that he wished to showcase a talent he had observed and worked with. (Darryl) Zanuck had offered Ann the invitation to choose her own story, and she felt Emery’s Gallant Lady had potential. ‘I still have the audacity to think I can spot a good picture story,’ Ann declared at the time.”

With any other actress, Clive Brook might’ve stolen the show as Sally’s admirer, Dan. He plays a disgraced doctor and social outcast who wanders in and out of the film– drinking, smoking, and providing our heroine with much-needed advice. It’s a wonderfully understated performance, and his presence as Sally’s emotional anchor is one of the highlights. Brook was a distinguished British film star who became a popular leading man in Hollywood beginning in the late 1920s. Some of you probably remember Brook opposite Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, but he was also known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in three films.

With Otto Kruger
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Otto Kruger plays Phillip Lawrence, the adoptive father. Kruger is known for his roles in films like Son of Dracula and Murder, My Sweet. Longtime Broadway actress Janet Beecher, who made her film debut in 1933, portrays Maria Sherwood, and Dickie Moore is Deedy Lawrence. Moore, of course, is fondly remembered for the series of “Our Gang” shorts he appeared in as well as numerous classic films throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He had a role in what is widely considered to be Ann Harding’s best film, Peter Ibbetson, playing Gary Cooper’s character as a boy. Moore is the only star from this film still with us– now 88 years old.

The film was directed by Gregory La Cava. He originally worked for William Randolph Hearst as a producer of early animated cartoons, but he eventually became a director of live-action silent movies. He is best known for the films he did in the 1930s, most notably My Man Godfrey with Carole Lombard and William Powell. This landmark screwball comedy would reward La Cava with an Oscar nomination for Best Director. He showed that he could handle comedy as well as heavy drama.

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Though it was a box office hit, the popularity of women’s films like Gallant Lady would eventually fall out of fashion. Though Harding was greatly associated with these types of pictures, there were other factors involved in the decline of her career. Harding was a naturally reserved actress who didn’t go out of her way to talk to the press. She once said, “Whatever charm and dignity an actor may possess are ruined if delved into too deeply.” As a result, she didn’t endear herself to the critics. Some of whom unfairly attacked her films simply because they didn’t like her. By 1937 she had had enough of Hollywood, yet she would return in the 1940s in supporting roles in films like Mission to Moscow with Walter Huston. She would never again be the star she had been in the early 1930s, but Ann Harding never craved publicity or sought stardom. For her, acting was a craft. She thought only in terms of the ensemble—not the needs of an individual star.

It’s a shame Ann Harding was wasted with too few opportunities to display the kind of talent she had exhibited on Broadway and in her early film roles. She was pigeonholed into a certain type of screen persona when she was in fact far more diversified than that. Leslie Howard had specifically requested her for 1934’s Of Human Bondage, but she turned that role down and it eventually went to Bette Davis. Ann did wish to make a film version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises— a property she had acquired the rights to at one point. Certainly, portraying Lady Brett Ashley would’ve been a fabulous departure for her, but sadly, Hollywood’s Production Code enforcers closed down on any studio’s attempt to translate this novel to the screen. It was another in a series of lost opportunities for Ann Harding.

She will never be remembered the way we remember a Barbara Stanwyck or a Bette Davis. These were actresses whose careers spanned decades. Harding’s career as a leading lady was cut too short for that kind of immortality, but we can certainly rescue her from total obscurity. We can keep her memory alive by screening her films for new audiences. Younger generations who have only been weaned on today’s celebrity culture can begin to understand and appreciate the depth of a 1930s actress like Ann Harding– both as an artist and as a person. Her films contain a humanity that mainstream Hollywood has long since forgotten.

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Jewel Robbery (1932) by matthew c . hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on March 28, 2014 by mchoffman

“Jewel Robbery carries the charm of a naughty wink from start to finish.” ~ Scott O’Brien, author of Kay Francis: I Can’t Wait To Be Forgotten (2006)
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The first film series I ever programmed—the first one I could call my own—was a retrospective on Warner contract director William Dieterle. That was back in 2000 at the LaSalle Bank revival theatre in Chicago. One of the key films I didn’t show was Jewel Robbery, which wasn’t available on 16mm—the format I was using at the time. That was unfortunate because movies like Jewel Robbery best explain why I would do a series on the little-known William Dieterle in the first place. Then, ten years later with the Library, I organized a series of pre-Code films called “Forbidden Cinema,” and again, Jewel Robbery was not yet available (on dvd). So finally, after all these years, I’m playing the film for an audience.

If you want to get friends interested in old movies, Jewel Robbery is the one to do it. It’s a delightful romance with a sophisticated edge. It was made before Hollywood’s Production Code went into effect, so the film is very racy with innuendo and references to marital infidelity. And though it’s never mentioned by name, we can guess that those cigarettes that are being passed out throughout the movie is marijuana, which at that time was seen as a novelty.

This was something of a departure for Warner Bros. Many of their films had distinctly American settings featuring working-class characters. Jewel Robbery, which is set in Vienna, demonstrates they could rival Paramount in European elegance. The story would not have worked had it been set in this country. Even in pre-Code cinema, censors would’ve shown little tolerance towards depictions of American policemen in drug-induced hysterics.

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Jewel Robbery is a lot of fun to watch, primarily due to its two stars: William Powell and Kay Francis. In the film, Powell plays a debonair robber with a drawing room technique. He brings an artist’s appreciation to his work while robbing jewelry stores across Europe. He embodies the kind of mystery and excitement missing in the life of the Baroness, played by Kay Francis. She’s a rather shallow coquette who is only interested in furs and jewelry. She’s bored with her rich, older husband and has lovers on the side, but there’s no real romance in her life– that is, until William Powell enters it. As the film’s advertising proclaims, he steals more than her jewels.

William Powell was one of the most underrated actors from the golden age. Though he is best known for the six Thin Man movies he made with Myrna Loy, his career was far more expansive than Nick Charles. From 1922-1955, he appeared in 95 movies including The Great Ziegfeld, My Man Godfrey, Life With Father, and his final film, Mister Roberts. During the course of his long career Powell was nominated for Best Actor three times.

In his book The Films of William Powell, Lawrence Quirk writes, “The fundamental affirmation in his character seemed always to win the sympathy and trust of his audience, regardless of what side of the law his screen self found himself on; among his secrets for getting those people out there in the dark to love him were his urbane charm and lack of pretension, his civilized projection of inner humanity and humor. But he didn’t lack a sense of humor about himself. Asked by one interviewer how he kept so slim and trim, he replied: ‘I highly recommend worrying. It is much more effective than dieting.’”

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He was born in Pittsburgh in 1892. His father had wanted him to enter law, but Powell only wanted to be an actor. He eventually graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After some lean years in stock theatre and vaudeville, he finally got a break in 1922 with Spanish Love, a Broadway play that caught people’s attention. This was a turning point for Powell and he soon transitioned into Hollywood after being offered a contract by Paramount.

At Paramount, Powell would appear in many silent films, usually playing the villain who steals the scene from the hero. This changed when he appeared in The Canary Murder Case, the first of four films in which he played detective Philo Vance. He eventually left and signed a contract with Warner Brothers before going on to become a major star at MGM with the Thin Man films. Our film series has focused its attention on that middle point in Powell’s career when he made several films while under contract to Warner Brothers. This was a very interesting period that hasn’t been explored much. During the course of two years he appeared in some wonderful films including High Pressure, Lawyer Man, Private Detective 62, and The Key, which we’ll play in a few weeks.

Jewel Robbery was a film Powell initially didn’t want to do, but in the end he felt the role would be amusing enough. The film features Powell at his best. He is both precise and polished. He plays the sort of gentleman thief that was then popular in American movies. Other actors like his good friend Ronald Colman portrayed similar types in films like Raffles, which coincidentally starred Kay Francis. Jewel Robbery would be Powell’s fifth film opposite Francis. Everyone remembers how well Myrna Loy complemented Powell at MGM, but fewer people are aware of what great onscreen chemistry he had with Kay Francis. This is simply because their films together haven’t been seen except at film revivals.

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Between 1930 and 1935 Kay Francis was the biggest star on the Warner Bros. lot. By 1937 she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood. She was also one of the tallest leading ladies at around five-nine. Kay Francis would remain Warners’ top female star until Bette Davis overtook her. In movie after movie she came across as smart and sophisticated. Fans of pre-Code cinema remember Kay Francis for her chic fashions in her movies—Jewel Robbery features designs by Orry-Kelly—and for her famous speech impediment. Her “r”s were pronounced as “w”s… This vocal idiosyncrasy just made the “wavishing Kay Fwancis” all the more charming to audiences. She was a unique personality and the very definition of a movie star, giving audiences, especially female theatre-goers, the kind of elegance they wanted to see during the Great Depression.

Like Ann Harding, Kay Francis was another Broadway star who migrated to Hollywood in those early days when sound was becoming the rage in movies. With encouragement from actor Walter Huston, she got a test with Paramount and soon starred with him in 1929’s Gentleman of the Press. Her next film had her opposite the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts. In these early years she usually played a vamp, but she made an impression even if she wasn’t the nominal star. She first appeared with William Powell at Paramount in 1930’s Behind the Make-Up, although Fay Wray was the star of that one. Francis would make several films with William Powell, but their most memorable films together came after she left Paramount for Warners. Her last film with him, 1932’s One Way Passage, would be one of her best.

Most of these star vehicles featured fine support from many familiar character actors. Warner Brothers was one of the best with a stock company of actors that turned up in all their productions. Jewel Robbery features a supporting cast of great character actors including Henry Kolker as the Baron and Alan Mowbray as Detective Fritz. Even the minor players are given some sort of business to characterize them.

Shooting a scene during the production of Jewel Robbery…
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Director William Dieterle (on one knee with gloves)…
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It’s easy to compare this film to another sophisticated comedy about jewel thieves, Trouble in Paradise, which was released a few months after Jewel Robbery and again featured Kay Francis. The Ernst Lubitsch film is without question a masterpiece of continental charm, but William Dieterle’s film is hardly costume jewelry by comparison. The entire production is very much tongue-in-cheek, of course, but there’s also an airy quality that makes it feel like something out of a fairy tale. Jewel Robbery stands on its own terms as a great film with Dieterle providing his own touch to the material.

Though based on a 1931 Hungarian play by Ladislaus Fodor and its English adaptation by Bertram Bloch, there is nothing remotely stagy about it with its brisk pacing and fluid camerawork. Shots feel inspired rather than routine. It also has sparkling dialogue by Erwin S. Gelsey, which adds a sense of movement to the proceedings; the words complement the action. Finally, the atmospheric sets wonderfully evoke Vienna—even though the production never left the Warner lot.

Jewel Robbery is a product of a bygone era where the emphasis was on escapism and entertainment. Unlike today’s broad comedies with their modern sensibilities, Jewel Robbery’s story is conveyed with impeccable taste and subtlety by two great stars. It’s one of the finest films to come out of the studio system and certainly one of the best films in The Rediscovered.

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D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on March 21, 2014 by mchoffman

“Critical judgments of the very early sound period were often very curious. Films that were shunted aside then seem quite marvelous today, and films which rated raves then, often don’t live up to them now. Abraham Lincoln really needs patience and an appreciation of Griffith to be fully enjoyed; it has many of the weaknesses of early talkies, and is slow, stiff, sometimes clumsy. But it is a tremendously sincere and deeply felt work; one is occasionally restless, but one never lacks respect for it.” ~ William K. Everson, 1964

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D.W. Griffith was a giant in the film industry, though he is barely remembered today. When we speak of his legacy, we’re recalling films that go back to the dawn of narrative filmmaking—ancient history for modern viewers. His films are removed from us by time, but also by his subject matter and his themes which often reflect Victorian attitudes. Despite this, Griffith is a name that should not be forgotten, and yet he was forgotten even in his own lifetime.

He was a pioneer who developed the grammar of motion picture storytelling. In time, though, Hollywood grew up and adapted to the changing times, and it passed Griffith on by. By the middle of the Roaring Twenties, Griffith was already out of fashion with movie audiences. His sensibilities were deeply rooted in an earlier time. In an age that craved Jazz Age liberation, Griffith was still rooted in 1890s melodrama.

But his best films are more than antiques or historical footnotes. Films like Orphans of the Storm, Way Down East, Broken Blossoms, and yes, The Birth of a Nation, are some of the best representations of the silent era. His films, for better or worse, were the product of his own vision. Griffith’s best films could be described as pastoral romances. He knew how to compose a frame, and his films displayed a pictorial beauty and a visual romanticism that transformed cinema into an art form. Griffith may be perceived as old-fashioned today and certainly the modern movie-goer would find his films hard to embrace, but he was a master storyteller whose films influenced many great filmmakers like John Ford.

Abraham Lincoln was made at a time when the old master’s career was winding down. It was his first sound film. He would make only one more movie after this. In 1930, Griffith was operating in a strange new world of sound filmmaking. Like many early talkies, it will appear as rather static with action limited by the placement of the hidden microphone. Abraham Lincoln does not represent his most dynamic work, but it has moments of greatness despite its minor flaws.

Walter Huston and Una Merkel
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The film is often unfairly maligned by criticisms that attack everything from Una Merkel’s Ann Rutledge to Walter Huston’s heavy makeup in the early scenes. If anyone has the patience for it, try reading the user reviews on IMDB. But here at the Library, we see film in a different light. We understand the context of the times in which a film was made. Ironically, if you look on the “rottentomatoes” website, Abraham Lincoln has a 100% favorable rating with the critics, which is even higher than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Granted, only eight reviews are listed for the 1930 film. But at the time of its original release, Abraham Lincoln did receive good notices.

Walter Huston’s screen Lincoln is not as well-known as those that would follow. Nine years later John Ford transformed Henry Fonda into a Young Mr. Lincoln, and the following year saw Raymond Massey as Abe Lincoln in Illinois. But Abraham Lincoln deserves to be in their company because it is one of the definitive Lincoln films. Like Fonda and Massey, and Daniel Day-Lewis from a year ago, Walter Huston becomes the character, physically resembling Lincoln more and more as the film marches on. The Canadian-born Walter Huston was one of the great actors in the early talkie period—or any period for that matter. He appeared on Broadway before becoming a Hollywood star in films like The Beast of the City, American Madness, Gabriel Over the White House, Dodsworth, and so many others throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. His career culminated with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. His selection as Lincoln was ideal casting.

Una Merkel plays Lincoln’s first love, Ann Rutledge. Like her director, Griffith, she was a native Kentuckian. In fact, her hometown of Covington is less than a hundred miles from where Griffith was born in LaGrange. In the 1930s Merkel was known mostly as a comedienne, usually playing the second lead, which typically had her as the sidekick to the heroine. She appeared in 42nd Street and many other pre-Codes of the 1930s like Red-Headed Woman and Midnight Mary, which we played a few years ago.

Abraham Lincoln also features many actors Griffith had used in his silent days, such as Hobart Bosworth, who is the reincarnation of General Lee, and Henry B. Walthall as Lee’s second-in-command, Colonel Marshall. Walthall’s role, though small, is a nice inclusion since he had starred as the Little Colonel in The Birth of a Nation 15 years earlier.

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The story, credited to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Vincent Benet, is episodic and told in vignettes that may seem all too brief, like half-recalled memories of our nation’s past. Originally, Griffith wanted Carl Sandburg to write the story. Sandburg, who four years earlier had published Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, would have given the material historical legitimacy. Unfortunately, the studio was not willing to meet that expense. Sandburg did, however, suggest to Griffith that he tell Lincoln’s life story in “a series of personality sketches.”

The second half of the film is much stronger as it settles on the Civil War. This was a period in our nation’s history that was close to Griffith’s heart. His Southern heritage influenced his work. His own father had been a Confederate colonel. Though there is admiration for the South, especially in how General Lee is portrayed in contrast to the hard-drinking General Grant, there is also a reverence for Lincoln who was obviously a historical figure Griffith admired. He had contemplated doing a story on the Great Emancipator since his early days at Biograph Studios. With his career in need of a box office hit, Griffith again retreated into the past and found comfort in a story he knew well. Modern retellings focus more on Lincoln’s human qualities—his intelligence and political acumen. Griffith, on the other hand, created a real sense of myth; he expressed it through the visual power of his camera. His approach was to depict Lincoln as a great man who shaped history.

One of the best reviews of tonight’s film was written by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum who writes, “Both of D.W. Griffith’s sound films—Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931) were scorned as archaic when they came out, which helps explain why he wasn’t allowed to direct again for the 17 remaining years of his life. But both films look better and better with the passage of time, which suggests that Griffith continued to grow as an artist as long as he made films. Working with the sort of mythic material later associated with John Ford, Griffith gives us a primordial Lincoln, perfectly incarnated by Walter Huston, and a dreamlike sense of destiny that his camera fully articulates.”

That sense of destiny is clearly reflected in the atmospheric opening with the slave ship and the later birth of Lincoln in the log cabin in 1809. The inference is that Lincoln is the new Moses who will set a race of people free. It’s a very haunting sequence abetted by the fluid camera work of Karl Struss and the set design of William Cameron Menzies. The artificialness of the scene in the woods adds to the dream quality. Fate or a divine hand has brought Lincoln into the world.

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Many viewers who judge old films by the standards of today will find fault with the film’s presentation. One modern viewer criticized the film’s obvious use of models, as seen with the log cabin and the Lincoln Memorial. But if you study these shots you can see that models were needed to accomplish the desired camera effects. The last shot of the film, which includes a tracking shot up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, simply would not have been possible or practical had they used actual footage of the Lincoln Memorial.

Writer Robert Henderson in his biography on Griffith said that “animated history is not drama no matter how worthy the subject.” However, this film is more than waxworks in a museum. The recreations come to life. Huston brings humanity to the role with the anguish of war clearly etched upon his face. His pardoning of a cowardly soldier– as well as Sheridan’s stirring ride– are some of the more dramatic moments. And then there is the assassination at Ford’s Theatre, which Griffith had staged years before in The Birth of a Nation. You know what’s coming, but it’s still suspenseful. The murder has the pure drama of something out of Shakespeare, so it’s hard to mess that up as a storyteller. (Although, Spielberg’s film simply settled for a reaction shot of Lincoln’s son, who hears the tragic news while at another theatre.)

It’s amazing that the film turned out as well as it did. Griffith suffered a great deal of interference from the film’s intrusive producer, who even refused Griffith’s request to make the final edit. Nor was it a happy experience for the film’s writer, Stephen Vincent Benet, who supposedly wrote five scenarios but very little of his work was used. This may not have been Griffith’s fault, but he was in a precarious situation with a studio ready to drop him. He was not in a position to defend Benet even if he wanted to.

There are many important historical details that are missing. For instance, there is no scene depicting the Gettysburg Address. If you recall the recent Lincoln film, its very first scene involved black soldiers reciting the speech back to their Commander-In-Chief. But unlike the earlier versions– including the overrated Spielberg film, which was more about the fight to end slavery– Griffith’s film tries to tell the whole story—not just one period in a great man’s life. Abraham Lincoln might not have the historical accuracy of Ken Burns’ Civil War, but it awakens feelings in us for that time with its imagery. To elicit emotion from an audience is more important than plot points. Few recreations of that era feel as authentic as those seen in Abraham Lincoln. Unlike today’s films which distance us from the period with their modern techniques of storytelling, Abraham Lincoln make us feel closer to the 1860s because the film simply looks vintage. Griffith recalls Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs and transforms them into images on moving celluloid– history distilled onto film.

One thing that is not missing is the issue of slavery. Some viewers seem to think Griffith glosses over this. His Lincoln’s primary goal of his presidency is to preserve the union, a sentiment we hear several times. Yet Griffith includes the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. And for a director often condemned nowadays for his depiction of blacks, we see the horror of slavery in the prologue which is remarkable for its time. There is also a later image of slavery in which men are towing a line to a barge while singing a spiritual. Griffith seems to be able to show the oppression of real blacks collectively, but in a scene in which John Wilkes Booth is introduced, the one individual black with spoken dialogue is played by a white actor in blackface. Since the scene conveys the Southern perspective, it’s as though Griffith is consciously returning to the old film prejudices, whereas the prologue conveys the objective eye of an overall storyteller.

When I played this film at the LaSalle Bank revival theatre in 2001 as part of a month devoted to D.W. Griffith, I played the 81 minute version. Our version is 93 minutes. It’s been restored by the Museum of Modern Art and released by Kino, but portions of the soundtrack remain lost. So when viewers see the subtitles on the screen in the first reel, they’ll know that portion of the film is simply missing. There is no dialogue or sound. But in the best silent film tradition, the visuals tell us everything.

Abraham Lincoln appears to be a recurring theme with the film program this spring. One recalls the importance of Lincoln in the life of Jefferson Smith in last week’s film at the Pickwick Theatre. Though we know how Abraham Lincoln ends, the story will continue in the wake of John Wilkes Booth when we screen John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island. Ford was greatly influenced by Griffith, and we’ll see Ford following in the master’s footsteps this May.

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Postscript: Thank you to all those who came out on March 20 for our screening of Abraham Lincoln. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive with some in the audience considering Huston to be the best movie Lincoln. A day before the screening one of our library patrons asked me, “Is it as good as the Daniel-Day Lewis film?” I said it was better. Whereas the Steven Spielberg film is essentially 150 minutes of talking heads, Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln is a greater work of pure cinema.

Introducing Mr. Smith & Mr. Rains

Posted in Uncategorized on March 20, 2014 by mchoffman

Here is some rare footage of program host Matthew Hoffman and movie hostess Allison onstage at the Pickwick Theatre just prior to their tribute to Claude Rains. (This video comes courtesy of David “The Rock” Nelson.)

The Rediscovered Headlines Spring Programming!

Posted in Uncategorized on March 9, 2014 by mchoffman

Don’t miss the new film series at the Park Ridge Public Library. For an article about the spring program, Click Here!

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